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Jewish World Review May 6, 2002 / 23 Iyar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Two guys you'd love
to have on your side | Many of you thought that the idea by a man named David McGrath -- an idea I wrote about here last week -- was a terrible one.

The idea was that big-league athletes would do themselves, and the country, a favor by serving in the military while America is at war. Pro athletes get knocked so much -- for their salaries, for their reluctance to sign autographs unless paid, for appearing to dog it on the field of play -- that they could use the goodwill that would come from military service. And the armed services could use the skills of these strong and finely conditioned young men.

Those of you who hated the idea did so for two reasons.

1. Some of you -- mostly military families -- said pro athletes are not good enough to serve in the Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force. They might be in good enough shape to play, say, baseball -- but they couldn't cut it in the Marines. At least that's what some of you think.

2. Others said that it would simply never happen -- that pro athletes are so spoiled by their salaries and their first-class living arrangements that, unless forced, they would never go into the armed services.

That second contention gives me the opportunity to relate a story about the military. I have spoken with both men involved; each has explained to me the details.

The story took place during the Korean War, at the First Marine Air Wing's base on the southeastern coast of Korea. Two Marine pilots, each at the control of his own Panther jet, often went out on two-plane missions together, flying side-by-side.

One was a sunny-dispositioned, blond-haired, crew-cut Marine who had grown up in Ohio. The other was a tall, dark-haired, sometimes brooding Marine whose last employment, before Korea, had been in Massachusetts.

The blond-haired Marine with the crew cut was John Glenn. The dark-haired Marine with the complicated moods was Ted Williams.

Is that an American story for you, or not? Today the world thinks of John Glenn as the 80-year-old former senator who was a national hero as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth. Today the world thinks of Ted Williams as an old man in frail health who only makes the news when he is hospitalized -- the last baseball player to hit .400 in a season, now in the winter of his life.

But in the early 1950s, Glenn was a hotshot Marine pilot no one outside the military had ever heard of. In the early 1950s, Williams had already given up a good part of his career to serve in World War II -- and now he had been called away from the Boston Red Sox again to fly combat missions in Korea.

The two men have nothing but praise -- something close to love -- for each other. I have spoken with both of them during the last few years, and have asked each to describe the other as a combat pilot.

"John Glenn?" Ted Williams told me. "Oh ... could he fly an airplane. Absolutely fearless. The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him."

(When you talk with Ted Williams, by the way, you are struck by the voice -- it is as close to John Wayne's voice as anything you will ever hear. I said to Williams: "Do people ever tell you that you sound like John Wayne?" Williams said -- and he wasn't kidding -- "John Wayne sounded like me.")

Glenn, when I asked him about Williams as a pilot, said: "He was just great. The same skills that made him the best baseball hitter ever -- the eye, the coordination, the discipline -- are what he used to make himself an excellent combat pilot."

Here is what Glenn, in his memoirs, wrote about flying with Williams:

"We would be over one of their supply roads. Then we would drop down and follow the road back toward the front, hoping to catch their troops and trucks in the open . . . We leapfrogged, with one of us flying at treetop level and the other at 1,000 or 1,500 feet above and behind in order to see farther down the road and relay advice to the `shooter' on targets ahead. We would switch positions every 10 minutes. ..."

Ted Williams and John Glenn, up there on combat missions. ...

Anyway: Could a professional athlete in the prime of his career really be at home in the military?

History would seem to say yes.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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